HOME AG LIBRARY CATALOG GO TO NEXT CHAPTER
Agricultural enthusiasm at the close of the eighteenth century; high prices of agricultural produce; the causes of the advance; increased demand and cessation of foreign supplies; the state of the currency; rapid advance of agriculture on the new lines of capitalist farming; impulse given to enclosing movement and the introduction of improved practices; Davy's Lectures on Agricultural Chemistry; the work of large landlords: Coke of Norfolk.
THE enthusiasm for farming progress, which Arthur Young zealously promoted, spread with rapidity. A fashion was created which was more lasting, because less artificial and more practical, than it had been in the days of Pope. Great landlords took the lead in agricultural improvements. Their farming zeal did not escape criticism. Dr. Edwards' Plan of an Undertaking for the Improvement of Husbandry etc. in 1783 expressed a feeling which was prevalent two centuries before: "Gentlemen have no right to be farmers; and their entering upon agriculture to follow it as a business is perhaps a breach of their moral duty." But it was now that young men, heirs to landed estates as well as younger sons, began to go as pupils to farmers. George III. rejoiced in the title of "Farmer George," considered himself more indebted to Arthur Young than to any man in his dominions, carried the last volume of the Annals with him in his travelling carriage, kept his model farm at Windsor, formed his flock of merino sheep, and experimented in stock-breeding. The Duke of Bedford at Woburn, Lord Rockingham at Wentworth, Lord Egremont at Petworth, Coke at Holkham, and numerous other landlords, headed the reforming movement. Fox, even in the Louvre, was lost in consideration whether the weather was favourable to his turnips at St. Anne's Hill. Burke experimented in carrots as a field crop on his farm at Beaconsfield, though he pointed his sarcasms against the Duke of Bedford for his devotion to agriculture. Lord Althorp, in the nineteenth century, maintained the traditions of his official predecessors. During a serious crisis of affairs, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Grey of Dilston called upon him in Downing Street on political business. Lord Althorp's first question, eagerly asked, was "Have you been at Wiseton on your way up? Have you seen the cows?" The enthusiasm for farming began to be scientific as well as practical. No new book escaped the vigilance of agriculturists. Miss Edgeworth's Essay on Irish Bulls (1802) had scarcely been published a week before it was ordered by the secretary of an agricultural society. Nor were the clergy less zealous. An archdeacon, finding a churchyard cultivated for turnips, rebuked the rector with the remark, "This must not occur again." The reply, "Oh no, Mr. Archdeacon, it will be barley next year," shows that, whatever were the shortcomings of the Church, the eighteenth century clergy were at least devoted to the rotation of crops.
Every department of agriculture was permeated by a new spirit of energy and enterprise. Rents rose, but profits outstripped the rise. New crops were cultivated; swedes, mangel-wurzel, kohl rabi, prickly comfrey were readily adopted by a new race of agriculturists. Breeders spent capital freely in improving live-stock. New implements were introduced. The economy and handiness of ploughs like the Norfolk, or the Rotherham ploughs as improved by James Small of Blackadder Mount, were gradually recognised, and the cumbrous mediaeval instruments with their extravagant teams superseded. Meikle's threshing machine (1784) began to drive out the flail by its economy of human labour. Numerous patents were taken out between 1788 and 1816 for drills, reaping, mowing, haymaking, and winnowing machines, as well as for horse-rakes, scarifiers, chaff-cutters, turnip-slicers, and other mechanical aids to agriculture. In the northern counties iron gates and fences began to be used. The uniformity of weights and measures was eagerly discussed and recommended. Cattle-shows, wool-fairs, ploughingmatches were held in various parts of the country. Counties, like Durham, Northumberland, Cheshire, and Leicestershire, started experimental farms. The short-lived Society of "Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture" had been formed in 1723. The Society for the "Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce" was instituted in London in 1754. Other associations, more exclusively agricultural, speedily followed The Bath and West of England Society was founded in 1777, the Highland Society m 1784, the Smithfield Club in 1798. The creation of the Board of Agriculture in 1793 has been already mentioned. The Farmers' Club was established in 1793. The first number of the Farmer's Magazine which appeared in January, 1800, rapidly passed through five editions. Provincial societies multiplied. At Lewes, in 1772, Lord Sheffield had established a Society for the "Encouragement of Agriculture, Manufacture and Industry"; but it does not seem to have survived the war with France and the United States. Few counties were without their organisations for the promotion of agricultural improvement. One of the first was established at Odiham in Hampshire. Kent had its agricultural society at Canterbury (1793) and the Kentish Society at Maidstone. In Cornwall (1793), Berkshire (1794), Shropshire (1790), at Shifnal and at Drayton in Leicestershire (1794), in Herefordshire (1797), provincial societies were founded. The West Riding of Yorkshire had its society at Sheffield, Lancashire at Manchester, Worcestershire at Evesham (1792), Huntingdonshire at Kimbolton. In Northamptonshire similar associations were formed at Peterborough, Wellingborough and Lamport. The list might be enlarged. But, though many of these societies were short-lived, their foundation illustrates the new spirit which animated farming at the close of the eighteenth century.
The period from 1780 to 1813 was one of exceptional activity in agricultural progress. Apart from the flowing tide of enthusiasm, landlords and farmers were spurred to fresh exertions and a great outlay of capital and labour by the large returns on their expenditure. All over the country new facilities of transport and communication began to bring markets to the gates of farmers; new tracts of land were reclaimed; open arable farms and pasture commons were broken up, enclosed, and brought into more profitable cultivation; vast sums of money were spent on buildings and improvement. In spite of increased production, prices rose higher and higher, and carried rents with them. "Corn," says Ricardo, "is not high because a rent is paid; but a rent is paid because corn is high." In certain circumstances--if the State is landlord, or if landowners could combine for the purpose--rents might raise prices. But the general truth of Ricardo's view was illustrated during the French War. From 1790 to 1813, rents rose with the rise in prices, until over a great part of Great Britain they were probably doubled. Even the larger yield from the land under improved methods of cultivation did not cheapen produce, reduce prices, and so cause lower rents. On the contrary, prices were not only maintained, but continued to rise.
This continuously upward tendency in prices was unprecedented. It cannot be attributed to the operation of the Corn Laws. Down to 1815 that legislation had scarcely affected prices at all, and therefore could not influence rents. The rise was rather due to a variety of causes, some of which were exceptional and temporary. A series of unprosperous seasons prevailed over the whole available corn-area of Northern Europe. In England deficient harvests, though the shortage was to some extent mitigated by the increased breadth under corn, reduced the home supply at a time when the growth of an artisan population increased the demand. The country throughout these years either stood, or thought that it stood, on the verge of famine. Prices were raised by panic-stricken competition. As the area of the war extended, foreign supplies became less and less available. The enormous increase in the war-charges for freight and insurance made Great Britain more and more dependent on her own produce. Necessity compelled the full development of her existing resources, as well as the resort to inferior land. Larger supplies of home-grown corn could only be obtained either by improved methods of cultivation or by bringing untilled land under the plough. The one method powerfully stimulated the progress of agriculture, which may be summed up in increasing the yield and lowering the cost of production; the other was the valid justification of the rapid enclosure of wastes, open-fields, and commons. Much of the land that now was sown with corn could only be tilled at a profit when prices were high, because the outlay on its tillage was greater, and the return from its cultivation was less, than on ordinary land. Yet, as prices then stood, even this inferior soil was able to bear a rent, and by each step towards the margin of cultivation, the rental value of land of better quality was enhanced. Thus Napoleon proved to be the Triptolemus or patron saint not only of farmers but of landlords.
Another cause of the high prices of the time was the state of the currency. When gold is cheap, commodities are dear. Any great increase in the production of gold for a time raises prices; the sovereign becomes of less relative value; it buys less than before, and more gold has to be paid for the same quantity. But this direct effect of gold discoveries was not then in operation; it had spent its force, and at the close of the eighteenth century did not materially affect prices. Similar results were, however, produced by the immense extension of that system of deferred payment which is called credit. Paper money was issued in excessive quantities, not only by the Bank of England but by the private banks all over the country. A new medium of exchange was created. This addition to the circulating medium raised prices in the same kind of way as an actual addition to the quantity of coin. But there was this important difference. Paper money is only a promise to pay; it is only representative money, and, unless it is convertible into gold, the credit which it creates is fictitious and may be excessive. The immense development of manufacturing industries and of the canal system, in the years 1785-92, required increased facilities for carrying on commercial transactions. But bankers, in their eagerness to create business, made advances on insufficient or inconvertible securities, discounted bills without regard to the actual value of the commodities on which the transactions were based, and issued notes far beyond the amount which their actual funds justified. In 1793 came the first crash. The Bank of England, warned by the fall of the exchanges and the outflow of gold, restricted their issue of notes. A panic followed. Out of 350 country banks in England and Wales, more than 100 stopped payment; their promises to pay were repudiated; and their paper was destroyed at the expense of the holder. The ruin and the loss of confidence were widespread; those who escaped the crash hoarded their money instead of making investments in mercantile undertakings. But the destruction of so much paper temporarily restored the proportion between the gold in the country and the paper by which it was represented.
In 1797 a second crisis occurred. Alarmed at a prospect of invasion, country depositors crowded to withdraw deposits and realise their property. There were runs on the country banks, and such heavy demands for their support were made on the Bank of England that, on Saturday, February 25, 1797, the stock of coin and bullion had fallen to under £1,300,000, with every prospect of a renewal and an increase of the run on the following Monday. On Sunday, February 26, an Order of Council suspended payments in cash until Parliament could consider the situation. The merchants of London came to the rescue of the bank. They guaranteed the payment of its notes in gold; the national credit was saved, and the worst of the threatened crisis was averted. But the failures of country banks were again, numerous. Once more the same process was repeated. Paper money in large quantities was destroyed at the cost of its holders, and the balance between the promise and the ability to pay was again readjusted. The experience was not lost on agriculturists, who found that their land was not only the most remunerative but the safest investment.
Under the Bank Restriction Act of 1797, the Bank of England suspended payment in coin. In other words a paper currency was created which was not convertible into gold. The Act was originally a temporary expedient. But it was not till 1821 that the bank completely resumed payment in specie. No doubt the effect of the Act was to aggravate the tendency of prices to rise. Yet the measure was probably justified by the exceptional circumstances of the war and of trade. It supplied the Government with gold for the expenses of our own expeditionary forces, as well as for the payment of subsidies to our allies. It also enabled the country to carry on the one-sided system of trade to which we were gradually reduced by the Continental blockade. Our exports of manufactured goods were excluded from European ports. Consequently the materials which we imported were paid for in cash instead of in goods, and the vessels which conveyed them to our ports returned in ballast. There was thus a constant drain of gold from the country. So long as the power to issue inconvertible notes was sparingly used, the paper currency maintained its nominal value. But from 1808 onwards such large quantities of paper were issued, not only by the Bank of England but by country banks, that it rapidly depreciated as compared with gold. It is probable that from 1811 to 1813 one-fifth of the enormous prices of agricultural produce were due to the disordered state of the currency. In 1814, owing partly to the abundant harvest of the previous year, partly to the collapse of the Continental blockade, prices rapidly fell. A financial crash followed which caused even more widespread ruin in country districts than the paroxysm of 1793. Of the country banks, 240 stopped payment, and 89 became bankrupt. The result was a wholesale destruction of bank-paper, the reduction of thousands of families from wealth to destitution, and the gradual restoration of the equilibrium of the currency.
The seasons, the war, the growth of population, the disorders of the currency, combined to raise and maintain at a high level the prices of agricultural produce in Great Britain. At the same time the prohibitive cost of transport prevented such foreign supplies as were then available from reducing the prices of home-grown corn. Circumstances thus gave British agriculturists a monopoly, which, after 1815, they endeavoured to preserve by legislation. Land was not only a most profitable investment, but the fate of speculators had again and again convinced both landlords and tenants that land was the safest bank. Thus business caution, as well as business enterprise, prompted the outlay of capital on agricultural improvement. Economic ideas pointed in the same direction. The doctrine of John Locke, that high rents were a symptom of prosperity still prevailed among politicians. It was also maintained that high rents were a necessary spur to agricultural progress. So long as land remained cheap, farmers rested satisfied with antiquated practices; the dearer the land, the more energetic and enterprising they necessarily became. Young went so far as to say that the spendthrift, who frequented London club-houses and raised rents to pay his debts of honour, was a greater benefactor to agriculture than the stay-at-home squire who lived frugally in order to keep within his ancestral income. No economist of the day had conceived any other method of satisfying the wants of a growing population except by improving the existing practices of farmers or bringing fresh tracts of land under the plough. Advanced Free Traders like Porter* never imagined that a progressive country could become dependent on foreign nations for its daily food. It was to the continuous improvement in agricultural methods that he looked for the means of supplying a population, which, he calculated, would, at the end of the nineteenth century, exceed 40 millions. Nor did he entertain any doubt that, by the progress of skill and enterprise, the quantity raised in 1840 could be increased by the requisite 150 per cent.
* "To supply the United Kingdom with the single article of wheat would call for the employment of more than twice the amount of shipping which now annually enters our ports, if indeed it would be possible to procure the grain from other countries in sufficient quantity ; and to bring to our shores every article of agricultural produce in the abundance which we now enjoy, would probably give constant occupation to the mercantile navy of the whole world." (Progress of the Nation, ed. 1847, p. 136).
Encouraged by high profits, approved by economists, justified by necessity, agriculture advanced rapidly on the new lines of large farms and large capital. The change was one side of a wider movement. In the infancy of agriculture and of trade, self-supporting associations had been formed for mutual defence and protection. Manorial organisations like trade guilds had begun to break up, when the central power was firmly established. Now, once more, agriculture and manufacture were simultaneously reorganised. Division of labour had become a necessity. Domestic handicrafts were gathered into populous manufacturing centres, which were dependent for food on the labour of agriculturists. Farms ceased to be self-sufficing industries, and became factories of beef and mutton. The pressure of these conditions demanded the utmost development of the resources of the soil. The cultivation of additional land by the most improved methods grew more and more necessary. Enclosures went on apace. Yet, even in favourable seasons, it was a struggle to keep pace with growing needs; scarcity, if not famine, resulted from deficiency. During part of the period, foreign supplies might be relied on to avert the worst. But throughout the Napoleonic wars this resource grew yearly more uncertain and more costly. The pace of enclosure was immensely accelerated. In the first 33 years of the reign of George III., there were 1355 Acts passed; in the 23 years of the wars with France (1793-1815) there were 1934. It is easy to attribute the great increase of enclosures during this last period solely to the greed of landlords, eager to profit by the high prices of agricultural produce. That the land would not have been brought into cultivation unless it paid to do so, may be admitted. But it must in justice be remembered that an addition to the cultivated area was, in existing circumstances, one of the two methods, which at that time were alone available, of increasing the supply of food, averting famine, and reducing prices. Economically, enclosures can be justified. But the processes by which they were sometimes carried out were often indefensible, and socially their effects were disastrous. On these points more will be said subsequently. Here it will be enough to reiterate the statement that enclosure meant not merely reclamation of waste ground, but partition of the commons and extinction of the open-field system. It has been suggested, on the authority of passages in his tract on Wastes, that Arthur Young learned to deplore his previous crusade against village farms, when he saw the effect of enclosures on rural life. What Young deplored was the loss of a golden opportunity of attaching land to the home of the cottager. But he never faltered in his conviction of the necessity of breaking up the open-fields and dividing the commons. In the tract on Wastes he emphatically asserts his wish to see all commons enclosed, and he was too great a master of his subject not to know that without pasture the arable village farms must inevitably perish.
The other method of increasing the food supplies of the country consisted of agricultural improvements. Here also the preparation of the ground involved changes which bore hardly on small occupiers of land. The new system of farming required large holdings, to which a new class of tenant of superior education and intelligence was attracted. It was on these holdings that capital could be expended to the greatest advantage, that meat and corn could be grown in the largest quantities, that most use could be made of those mechanical aids which cheapened production. Costly improvements could not be carried out by small hand-to-mouth occupiers, even if their obstinate adherence to antiquated methods would have allowed them to contemplate the possibility of change.
But this consolidation of holdings threw into the hands of one tenant land which had previously been occupied by several. If the land was laid down to grass, and in the case of heavy land, down to 1790, this was the most profitable form of enclosure, there was also a diminution in the demand for labour, and a consequent decrease in the population of the village. If, on the other hand, the land was cultivated as an arable farm, there was probably a greater demand for labour and possibly an increase in the numbers of the rural population. Arthur Young in Inquiry into the Propriety of applying Wastes to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor, 1801, shows that, out of 37 enclosed parishes in an arable county like Norfolk, population had risen in 24, fallen in 8, and remained stationary in 5. It cannot therefore be said that either enclosures, or the consolidation of holdings, necessarily depopulated country villages. Whether this result followed, or did not follow, depended on the use to which the land was put, though even on arable farms the gradual introduction of machinery, at present limited to the threshing machine, tended to diminish the demand for labour.
If the country was to be fed, more scientific methods of farming were necessary. The need was pressing, and both enclosures and the consolidation of large farms prepared the way for a new stage of agricultural progress. Hitherto bucolic life had been the pastime of a fashionable world, the relaxation of statesmen, the artificial inspiration of poets. But farmers had neither asked nor allowed scientific aid. The dawn of a new era, in which practical experience was to be combined with scientific knowledge, was marked by the lectures of Humphry Davy in 1803. In 1757 Francis Home (The Principles of Agriculture and Vegetation) had insisted on the dependence of agriculture on "Chymistry." Without a knowledge of that science, he said, agriculture could not be reduced to principles. In 1802 the first steps were taken towards this end. The Board of Agriculture arranged a series of lectures on "The Connection of Chemistry with Vegetable Physiology," to be delivered by Davy, then a young man of twenty-three, and recently (July, 1801) appointed Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He had already made his mark as the most brilliant lecturer of the day, attracting round him by his scientific use of the imagination such men as Dr. Parr and S. T. Coleridge, and the talent, rank, and fashion of London, women as well as men. His six lectures on agricultural chemistry, commencing May 10, 1803, were delivered before the Board of Agriculture. So great was their success that he was appointed Professor of Chemistry to the Board, and in that capacity gave courses of lectures during the ten following years. In 1813 the results of his researches were published in his Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. The volume is now out-of-date, though the lecture on "Soils and their Analyses," in spite of the progress of geological science and the adoption of new classifications, remains of permanent interest. Many passages that were then listened to as novelties are now commonplaces; others, especially those on manures, have been completely superseded by the advance of knowledge. But if the book has ceased to be a practical guide, it remains a historical landmark, and something more. It is the foundation-stone on which the science of agricultural chemistry has been reared, and its author was the direct ancestor of Liebig, Lawes, and Gilbert, to whose labours, in the field which Davy first explored, modern agriculture is at every turn so deeply indebted. It was Davy's work which inspired the choice by the Royal Agricultural Society (founded in 1838) of its motto "Practice with Science."
In Thomas Coke of Norfolk the new system of large farms and large capital found their most celebrated champion. In 1776, at the age of twenty-two, he came into his estate with "the King of Denmark" as "his nearest neighbour." Wealthy, devoted to field sports, and already Member of Parliament for Norfolk, it seemed improbable that he would find time for farming. But as an ardent Whig and a prominent supporter of Fox in the House of Commons, he was excluded by his politics from court life or political office. In 1778 the refusal of two tenants to accept leases at an increased rent threw a quantity of land on his hands. He determined to farm the land himself. From that time till his death in 1842, he stood at the head of the new agricultural movement. On his own estates his energy was richly rewarded. Dr. Rigby, writing in 1816, states that the annual rental of Holkham rose from £2,200 in 1776 to £20,000 in 1816.*
*The Pamphleteer, vol. xiii. pp. 469-70; Holkham and its Agriculture, 3rd edition, 1818, pp. 25, 28.
When Coke took his land in hand, not an acre of wheat was to be seen from Holkham to Lynn. The thin sandy soil produced but a scanty yield of rye. Naturally wanting in richness, it was still further impoverished by a barbarous system of cropping. No manure was purchased; a few Norfolk sheep with backs like rabbits, and, here and there, a few half-starved milch cows were the only live-stock; the little muck that was produced was miserably poor. Coke determined to grow wheat. He marled and clayed the land, purchased large quantities of manure, drilled his wheat and turnips, grew sainfoin and clover, trebled his live-stock. On the light drifty land in his neighbourhood the Flemish maxim held good: "Point de fourrage, point de bestiaux; sans bestiaux, aucun engrais; sans engrais, nulle recolte." "No keep, no livestock; without stock, no manure; without manure, no crops." It is, in fact, the Norfolk proverb, "Muck is the mother of money." In the last quarter of the eighteenth century the value of bones as fertilisers was realised. The discovery has been attributed to a Yorkshire fog-hunter who was cleaning out his kennels; others assign it to farmers in the neighbourhood of Sheffield, where refuse heaps were formed of the bones which were not available for the handles of cutlery. By the use of the new discovery Coke profited largely. He also introduced into the county the use of artificial foods like oil-cake, which, with roots, enabled Norfolk farms to carry increased stock. Under his example and advice stall-feeding was extensively practised. On Bullock's Hill near Norwich, during the great fair of St. Faith's, drovers assembled from all parts of the country, especially from Scotland, with herds of half-fed beasts which were bought up by Norfolk farmers to be fattened for London markets. The grass lands, on which the beef and mutton of our ancestors were raised, were deserted for the sands of the eastern counties, from which under the new farming practice, the metropolis drew its meat supplies. Numbers of animals fattened on nutritious food gave farmers the command of the richest manure, fertilised their land, and enabled them not only to grow wheat but to verify the maxim "never to sow a crop unless there is condition to grow it luxuriantly."
In nine years Coke had succeeded in growing good crops of wheat on the land which he farmed himself. He next set himself to improve the live-stock. After patient trial of other breeds, and especially of Shorthorns among cattle and of the New Leicesters and Merinos among sheep, he adopted Devons and Southdowns. His efforts were not confined to the home-farm. Early and late he worked in his smock-frock, assisting tenants to improve their flocks and herds. Grass lands, till he gave them his attention, were wholly neglected in the district. If meadow or pasture wanted renewal, or arable land was to be laid down in grass, farmers either allowed it to tumble down, or threw indiscriminately on the ground a quantity of seed drawn at haphazard from their own or their neighbour's ricks, containing as much rank weed as nutritious herbage. It was a mere chance whether the sour or the sweet grasses were aided in their struggle for existence. Stillingfleet, in 1760, had distinguished the good and bad herbage by excellent illustrations of the kinds best calculated to produce the richest hay and sweetest pasture. The Society of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce had offered premiums for the best collections of the best kinds, and in Edinburgh the Lawsons were experimenting on grasses. But Coke was the first landlord who appreciated the value of the distinctions by applying them to his own land. In May and June, when the grasses were in bloom, he gave his simple botanical lessons to the children of his tenantry, who scoured the country to procure his stocks of seed.
Impressed with the community of interest among owners, occupiers, and labourers, Coke stimulated the enterprise of his tenants, encouraged them to put more money and more labour into the land, and assisted them to take advantage of every new invention and discovery. Experiments with drill husbandry on 3,000 acres of corn land convinced him of its value in economy of time, in saving of seed, in securing an equal depth of sowing, and in facilitating the cleaning of the land. He calculated that he saved in seed a bushel and a half per acre, and increased the yield per acre by twelve bushels. As with the drill, so with other innovations. He tested every novelty himself, and offered to his neighbours only the results of his own successful experience. It was thus that the practice of drilling turnips and wheat, and the value of sainfoin, swedes, mangelwurzel, and potatoes were forced on the notice of Norfolk farmers. His farm-buildings, dwelling-houses, and cottages were models to other landlords. On them he spared no reasonable expense. They cost him, during his tenure of the property, more than half a million of money. By offering long leases of twenty-one years, he guaranteed to improving farmers a return for their energy and outlay. Two years before the expiration of a lease, the tenant was informed of the new rent proposed, and offered a renewal. "My best bank," said one of his farmers, "is my land." At the same time he guarded against the mischief of a long unrestricted tenancy by covenants regulating the course of high-class cultivation. Though management clauses were then comparatively unknown in English leases, his farms commanded competition among the pick of English farmers. "Live and let live" was not only a toast at the Holkham sheep-shearings, but a rule in the control of the Holkham estate. Cobbett was not prejudiced in favour of landlords. Yet even he was compelled to admit the benefits which Coke's tenants derived from his paternal rule. "Every one," he writes in 1821, "made use of the expressions towards him which affectionate children use towards their parents."
One great obstacle to the improvement of Norfolk farming remained. Farmers of the eighteenth century lived, thought, and farmed like farmers of the thirteenth century. Wheat instead of rye might be grown with success; turnips, if drilled, were more easily hoed and yielded a heavier crop than those which were sown broadcast; marl and clay might help to consolidate drifting soil. But the neighbouring farmers were suspicious of new methods, and distrusted a young man who disobeyed the saws and maxims of their forefathers. Politics ran so high that Coke's Southdowns were denounced as "Whiggish sheep." It was nine years before he found anyone to imitate him in growing wheat. "It might be good for Mr. Coke; but it was not good enough for them." As to potatoes, the best they would say was, that "perhaps they wouldn't poison the pigs." Even those who had given up broadcast sowing still preferred the dibber to the drill. Sixteen years passed before the implement was adopted. Coke himself calculated that his improvements travelled at the rate of a mile a year. The Holkham sheep-shearings did much by ocular demonstration to break down traditions and prejudices. These meetings originated in 1778, in Coke's own ignorance of farming matters; small parties of farmers were annually invited to discuss agricultural topics at his house and aid him with their practical advice. Before many years had passed, the gatherings had grown larger, and Coke had become a teacher as well as a learner. The Holkham sheep. shearing in June, 1806 is described in the Farmer's Magazine in the stilted language of the day, as "the happy resort of the most distinguished patrons and amateurs of Georgic employments." In 1818 open house was kept at Holkham for a week; hundreds of persons assembled from all parts of Great Britain, the Continent, and America. The mornings were spent in inspecting the land and the stock; at three o'clock, six hundred persons sate down to dinner; the rest of each day was spent in discussion, toasts, and speeches. The Emperor of Russia sent a special representative, and among the learners was Erskine, who abandoned the study of Coke at Westminster Hall to gather the wisdom of his namesake at Holkham. At the sheep-shearings, year after year, were collected practical and theoretical agriculturists, farmers from every district, breeders of every kind of stock, who compared notes and exchanged experiences. In many other parts of England similar meetings were held by great landlords, like the Duke of Bedford at Woburn,* or Lord Egremont at Petworth, who in their own localities were carrying on the same work as Coke.
* For a description of a Woburn sheep-shearing, or "this truly rational Agricultural Fete," see Farmer's Magazine for July, 1800.
At Holkham and Woburn sheep-shearings, both landlords and farmers were learners; both required to be educated in the new principles of their altered business. It was by no means uncommon to find landlords who prevented progress by refusing to let land except at will, or bound their tenants by restrictive covenants to follow obsolete practices. There was, moreover, a tendency among the land-owning class to expect from rent-paying tenants a greater outlay on the land than a farmer's capital could bear or an occupier was justified in making. The question of improvements had not yet assumed the complicated forms which have developed under modern agricultural methods. But it had already been raised in the simpler shape. The liability for improvements of a permanent character required to be defined; no distinction was yet drawn between changes which added some lasting benefit to the holding and those whose effects were exhausted within the limits of a brief occupation. Expenditure which might legitimately be borne by landlords was often demanded from tenants at will or even from year to year. Thousands of acres still lay unproductive because owners looked to occupiers for the reclamation of waste, the, drainage of swamps, or an embankment against floods. It was one of the lessons which were taught by the agricultural depression after the peace of 1815 that landowners must find the money for lasting improvements effected on their property.
That farmers should have realised the possibility of improving traditional practices was a great step in advance. The new race of men, who were beginning to occupy land, were better educated, commanded more capital, were more open to new ideas and more enterprising than their predecessors. Their holdings were larger, and offered greater scope for energy and experiment. The Reporters to the Board of Agriculture on Northumberland (1805) lay stress on the size of the farms, and on the spirit of enterprise and in dependence which now animated the tenants. "Scarcely a year passes without some of them making extensive tours for the sole purpose of examining modes of culture, of purchasing or hiring the most improved breeds of stock, and seeing the operations of new-invented and most useful implements." The Reporter on Middlesex (1798) emphasises the stagnation of farming among small occupiers. "It is rather the larger farmers and yeomen, or men who occupy their own land, that mostly introduce improvements in the practice of agriculture, and that uniformly grow much greater crops of corn, and produce more beef and mutton per acre than others of a smaller capital." The Oxfordshire Reporter (1809) says: "If you go into Banbury market next Thursday, you may distinguish the farmers from enclosures from those from open fields; quite a different sort of men; the farmers as much changed as their husbandry-quite new men, in point of knowledge and ideas." Elsewhere in the same Report,--it is Arthur Young who writes,--occurs the following passage: The Oxfordshire farmers "are now in the period of a great change in their ideas, knowledge, practice, and other circumstances. Enclosing to a greater proportional amount than in almost any other county in the kingdom, has changed the men as much as it has improved the country; they are now in the ebullition of this change; a vast amelioration has been wrought, and is working; and a great deal of ignorance and barbarity remains. The Goths and Vandals of open-fields touch the civilisation of enclosures. Men have been taught to think, and till that moment arrives, nothing can be done effectively. When I passed from the conversation of the farmers I was recommended to call on, to that of men whom chance threw in my way. I seemed to have lost a century in time, or to have moved a thousand miles in a day. Liberal communication, the result of enlarged ideas, was contrasted with a dark ignorance under the covert of wise suspicions; a sullen reserve lest landlords should be rendered too knowing, and false information given under the hope that it might deceive, were in such opposition, that it was easy to see the change, however it might work, had not done its business. The old open-field school must die off before new ideas can become generally rooted." In Lincolnshire, in the early years of George III., Arthur Young had found few points in the management of arable land which did not merit condemnation. The progress, which he noted as Reporter to the Board of Agriculture in 1799, was largely due to the changed character of the farmers. "I have not," he says, "seen a set more liberal in any part of the kingdom. Industrious, active, enlightened, free from all foolish and expensive show, . . . they live comfortably and hospitably, as good farmers ought to live; and in my opinion are remarkably void of those rooted prejudices which sometimes are reasonably objected to this race of men. I met with many who had mounted their nags, and quitted their homes purposely to examine other parts of the kingdom; had done it with enlarged views, and to the benefit of their own cultivation."